The Last Duel (2021)

Ridley Scott | 2hr 32min

It is crucial to the form of The Last Duel that its first act introduces us to what seems like a relatively standard medieval tale of love, betrayal, and vengeance, all told through the perspective of the noble French knight, Sir Jean de Carrouges. A hostile rivalry with his disrespectful squire, Jacques le Gris, is the driving force upon which his story progresses, especially when this entitled subordinate commits an act of treachery that pushes the knight to seek righteous justice. Though Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay intelligently draws out a complex power struggle between our main players in the first act, it is the turn that the film takes in its second which lifts its narrative up to a new level of intrigue, revealing an entirely different set of priorities altogether.

In this act, de Carrouges is not the honourable hero we were led to believe, and Marguerite, his beautiful wife, longs to escape their unsatisfying marriage. Or at least, this is truth according to le Gris, the playful womaniser who finds himself constantly covering for de Carrouges’ errors and shortcomings. History is written by whoever is in control of the narrative, and by traditional accounts, these are usually the men who win battles. As for those who aren’t men, and those who do not win battles – these are the alternate points-of-view which The Last Duel turns its attention to when de Carrouges’ version has run its limited course. They aren’t always grounded in reality or entirely comprehensive, but then again, neither is our conceptualisation of “objective” history which we so happily accepted without question at the start.

The Akira Kurosawa influence looms large here, certainly in Ridley Scott’s direction of exhilarating medieval battles and hierarchies, but most palpably in the Rashomon-style narrative structure which moves in chapters between three perspectives of a single story. Just as a court case becomes the centrepiece of Kurosawa’s 1950 psychological drama, so too does the trial of The Last Duel become a device through which Scott untangles the three messy accounts of the crime that has taken place – the rape of Marguerite, committed by le Gris.

It is the perfect canvas for a director as formally meticulous as Scott to examine our ever-shifting perceptions of history, as he goes about repeating the same events twice or thrice over with slight, barely perceptible variations between them. A modest kiss, shoes flying off in a frenzied panic, and desperate cries for help don’t just take on different meanings each time we witness them, but the perceived intent creates an adjustment in the action itself. In the mind of le Gris, that kiss lingers for a split second longer, those shoes are deliberately removed as an invitation, and those screams are sensual sighs, holding back a burning desire.

Such subtle discrepancies between each version pose great challenges for our main cast, as Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer essentially play three different versions of the same characters, and pull each off with flair. But this formal attentiveness goes beyond the performances, also becoming a showcase for Scott’s camerawork, which continues to refresh the same plot beats in its detailed alterations. A low-angle hanging on le Gris in a dominant position versus a close-up levelled with Marguerite’s distraught face makes all the difference in how we read both sides of the rape, as does the choice to let le Gris’ gaze pick her out in a crowd from a distance, when this same scene has played out elsewhere with both leading men at its centre.

Solid performances all round, but especially from Jodie Comer as Marguerite.

As for the complete exclusion of key moments from certain accounts, these are absolutely telling of how much import each narrator attaches to them, whether out of conscious or subconscious biases. Most significantly, the holes in de Carrouge’s perspective, initially assumed to be the “default”, only fully come to light when we have finally considered Marguerite’s version of the truth. It is here that her husband is exposed as a man not so invested in seeking to defend the vulnerable, but who has rather taken the rape of his wife as a slight against his own ego, and who now pursues personal vengeance out of blind, self-centred bitterness. The question of rightful ownership over material wealth has been a long-running feud between the men, and in Marguerite being given the opportunity to express herself, the addition of the rape to that list of superficial quarrels is revealed as the act of dehumanisation that it is, inevitably altering our judgement of every other character that suppressed her voice.

Such superb narrative form is not always matched by astonishingly beautiful compositions in The Last Duel, though Scott is by no means slouching off when it comes to his mise-en-scène either. There is a dedication to the sheer abundance of candles lighting up studies, dining halls, and throne rooms of medieval France, but it is in the exterior landscapes where we cower at the vast battlefields, castles, and grimy streets of this society that his world-building truly flourishes.

Consistent lighting through candles in so many of Ridley Scott’s interiors.

As promised, there is indeed a duel that takes place in this film, bookending its narrative with the pivotal moment upon which the fates of all three main characters rest. In building such tension to its lead-up, Scott makes ambitious assurances that this will pay off not just on the conflict between de Carrouges and le Gris, but Marguerite’s own struggle as well. Then, as it finally arrives, it is evident that this is a set piece entirely from the creative mind behind Gladiator. As the physical defences of each man are torn away, Scott’s exerts a fine control over his action editing and slow-motion, following this battle of horses and swords while it brutally descends into a visceral, muddy wrestle. Yet all throughout this physical violence, The Last Duel does not once lose sight of the female struggle and trauma perpetrated by the same men who then attempt to claim as their own through bombastic displays of strength and skill. In offering great empathy to these perspectives, Scott crafts a formally astounding interrogation of history as it is lived from moment to moment, and the inherent unreliability of any one account as the sole vessel of truth.

A muddy, high-stakes clash of swords and daggers to end the film, one of Scott’s best set pieces.

The Last Duel is currently playing in theatres.

3 thoughts on “The Last Duel (2021)”

  1. Yeah it’s not the sort of film I would have expected to make a big splash, especially since it feels like a genre that has been very played out over the decades, but I was pretty surprised by its freshness – definitely thanks to that Rashomon style structure more than anything. It will be a great film for repeat viewings. Keen to hear your thoughts!

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